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19th Century Emigration to the North Americas

The Irish poor law

A scene by the quay
A scene by the quay
The Irish Poor Law, enacted by the British Government in 1837, gave authority to Boards of Guardians to strike a poor rate (a form of local taxation). The money raised was used to take care of paupers in specially built workhouses. People in need would only receive help if they entered the workhouse. During the famine years these workhouses became so overcrowded, despite the appallingly high death rate, that the only way to deal with the excess was to encourage emigration. But so many clamoured to go - some even entering the workhouse for that sole purpose - that the option of emigration was restricted to those who had been inmates for at least two years.
Eventually, it was accepted that 'outdoor relief' should also be granted. This meant that paupers did not necessarily need to go into the workhouse but could nevertheless receive aid - including assistance to emigrate. Powers were granted to the Boards of Guardians enabling them to contribute towards the cost of emigration, including providing outfits and paying the passage of any family that could prove it needed help. Between 1849 and 1906 nearly 45,000 emigrants were assisted in this manner.
In the years after the Famine, government aid to Irish peasants concentrated mainly on the 'Congested Districts'. These were areas of special need, mainly concentrated on the western fringes of Ireland that had high population levels coupled with low employment opportunities. Between 1883 and 1891, approximately 25,000 'westerners' received assistance to emigrate.

Landlords as agents of emigration

Apart from supplying the 'sinews of emigration', through assisted passages, the British government inadvertently encouraged others to assist aspiring emigrants.
New taxes imposed on landlords for poor relief - the amount levied depending on the number of paupers resident in a parish - encouraged landlords to reduce their tax bill by reducing the number of poor peasants. Sometimes this could be achieved by 'forgiving' the rent, which would then be used to buy a passage, or by the landlord buying the tenant's home, land and crop at a price that would allow the family to emigrate.
While approximately 180 landlords and philanthropists offered some form of assistance to more than 80,000 emigrants - it was cheaper to pay for passages to Canada or America than to support the paupers at home - the bulk of assisted emigration was conducted by ten major landlords who, between them, sent out some 30,000 people.
Image of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston.
The 'top ten' were:
Fitzwilliam (Co. Wicklow)
Wandesford (Co. Kilkenny)
Lansdowne (Co. Kerry and Queen's)
Bath (Co. Monaghan)
Palmerston (Co. Sligo)
Wyndham (Co. Clare and Limerick)
Gore Booth (Co. Sligo)
Spaight (Co. Clare and Tipperary)
de Vesci (Co. Queen's)
Mahon (Co. Roscommon)


Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

Landlord sponsored emigration - often depicted as the cruel eviction of defenseless peasants - was accepted with gratitude, with the demand for assistance usually outstripping the supply. That said, many such emigrants did arrive in the Americas in a state of dire poverty and need. The Canadian authorities criticised Gore Booth for 'The shoveling of helpless paupers' off his estates. They also described the assisted emigrants from Lord Palmerston's Sligo estates as especially impoverished and miserable. However, those who survived quarantine had earned enough in twelve months to remit nearly 2,000 pounds to relatives at home.
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